Art gallery as salon

Gallery Josephine hosts reading of “Class,” a new play by Gloria Browne-Marshall.

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Matt Greenberg (left) is a disgruntled former student of Nikki Walker's Professor Kennedy in "Class." —Courtesy Gloria J. Browne

If you want to know what’s in the hearts and minds of angry, uneducated white men and what’s at stake for the people they resent the most — people of color who are comfortable and confident in their own dark skin — then this new play, “Class,” written by the talented playwright, professor, CNN, CBS, and MSNBC legal commentator, author, and activist Gloria Browne-Marshall, will put you in the know better than 1,000 hours of watching the news.

Ms. Browne-Marshall is of the Shakespeare school of “leave no moment unexciting.” Her play begins with Professor Kennedy, a tall, self-possessed and well-dressed black woman (Nikki Walker) talking on her cell phone about imminent plans — bags packed, ready to go at her feet — to fly up to the Vineyard for much-needed R & R after a semester of teaching at a fictional Ivy League college called Pembury.

A young white man, essentially still a boy, Jodie Hoctor, played by pale-skinned, red-haired Matt Greenberg, enters the classroom. He exudes instinctual rudeness as he hints at the professor’s success as a result of affirmative action. He’s there on a mission. At a community college where the professor held a prior post, she’d saddled him with a “D,” and this prevents him from pursuing a course of higher education at a college like Pembury. He seeks restitution in the form of a grade change and a letter of recommendation. At first the tension derives from the professor missing her plane. And then suspense is heightened when young Jodie pulls a gun on her.

The remainder of the gripping play, with its tense dialogue, transpires over the barrel of this weapon. Jodie hands his former teacher the essay that inspired the D, and asks her to read it out loud. Is he under the delusion that his arguments make perfect sense? It includes statements such as “Brown v. Board of Education was worse than the Civil War.”

Like a person whose values have slipped out from under him without his having any clue as to why, he proclaims, ”My father says this country was built for white men. The Constitution was for us. So when we share it with everybody else, then there should be some gratitude.”

He also says, with a sincere sense of injustice, ”There are no affirmative action programs for poor Irish-American kids who dream about being somebody.”

Even with a firearm aimed at her heart, Professor Kennedy balances her fear with dignity, and delivers bold and brilliant statements:

“We did more with fewer resources and a foot on our backs. Give me free land and forced labor. I could build an empire, too.”

“By 2045, America will be majority black and brown. You’ll just have to learn to share America with the rest of us Americans.”

“Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing love over hate.”

Afterward, Ms. Browne-Marshall, director Kim Weston-Moran, and the two actors opened up the “fourth wall” of the stage for discussion. And, of course, the audience was hardly kept captive; an invitation to leave or stay was issued. Most of us chose to stay, I think, because the opportunity to discuss race relations is new to us. Even those of us who live in a diverse culture, as we do here on the Island, are reluctant to offend by offering up ill-conceived opinions.

In this safe setting for commenting on a play that portrays the polar sides of class, ethnic, and economic conflict, conversation flowed freely. One audience member, a young, slim woman with buzzcut hair, said she’d grown up as a hillbilly in the rural South. She said that in her high-mountain enclave, everyone took care of each other, but as far as their relations went with the more entitled folks in the valley, her own people would “never not be afraid.” She herself, by leaving home and attending college, plus living in an environment where she was “free to be queer,” emerged as “a cycle-breaker” in her family.

Gallery Josephine is joining a longstanding trend of art galleries holding forums for play readings, book signings, lectures, and whatever other colorful events come along. Glamour is part of the experience, arising on all sides of the walls. Last Wednesday evening at Gallery Josephine, we were treated to large oil canvases, one of them depicting a reflective boxer, black and stripped down to his white underpants, by painter Heriberto Cogollo, “a national treasure of Colombia,” says gallery co-owner Nyama Wingood. Artists Heriberto Cogollo, Jerome Lagarrique, February James, and Baron Claiborne were all part of the exhibit.

Remember Paul Simon’s song, “It’s All Happening at the Zoo”? Nowadays it’s all happening at the art gallery, so look for new offerings in the Times’ Calendar section.

 

Gallery Josephine, 91 Dukes County Ave., Oak Bluffs; galleryjosephine.com.